Pick your Poison: Assessing the Strategic Effectiveness of Decapitation via Drone Strikes by Looking at the Organizational Dynamics of Targeted Groups

Gabriel Boulianne Gobeil


Leadership targeting, or decapitation, which involves the removal of an organization’s leader, has been utilized in various military conflicts. The use of drones has been particularly consequential in such schemes, earning themselves the reputation of being “Washington’s weapon of choice.” The existing literature on leadership targeting gravitates around the question of the practice’s strategic effectiveness, focusing on the targeted groups’ internal characteristics to explain their (in)ability to withstand decapitation. However, this literature overlooks a key feature of terrorist groups, namely their identity’s organizational dynamics. Highlighting the importance of group identities in determining the outcome of decapitations, this article fills this void. Looking at the cases of al Qaeda in Iraq and Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, it argues that groups which have a global identity are likely to retain cohesion when their leaders are the victim of decapitation while groups whose identity stems from an ethnic or tribal lineage tend to fragment, therefore creating “veto players.”

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JMSS is a publication of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

JMSS gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.